Those outside the writing and publishing community may not have heard of #ownvoices, but perhaps they have noticed an uptick in books featuring diverse characters. I have an academic (and personal) interest in questions of identity as well as writing, so I’ve been paying a lot of attention to this trend and wanted to hammer out my thoughts by writing about them.
Sarah Park Dahlen and her associates have used data from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison to create two infographics showing how the representation of minority characters in books has changed over the last few years.
I looked at this and saw it as good news. It’s important for young people to see characters who look like them in books and movies. It helps them feel that they have value, that their voices matter, and that they’re part of the big story of our world.
I was surprised by the anger some people expressed over it – not that there are more diverse characters, but that there are not enough. I would agree that there is still more we in the writing community can do to make sure the voices of people of color and other traditionally-minority groups are being heard. For instance, less than half of books with brown or black characters are written by people of color, which means that the voices we hear may not ring true if the white authors haven’t been very, very careful in their research, writing, and use of the advice of cultural insiders and sensitivity readers, and it leaves young people of color with fewer role models to look up to–and maybe with the sense that their voice doesn’t really matter. I think it’s counterproductive to say that white authors should never write characters who are people of color (what kind of weird world would we be writing about if all our characters are white? Even in medieval Europe there was ethnic diversity), but I do think white authors need to think carefully about how and why we’re including diverse characters and make sure we’re not shouting over the voices of people who are struggling to be heard.
But I like Hans Rosling’s assertion that we can maintain a dual mindset that “things are good” and also that “things need to get better.” Out of a desire to keep people engaged with a cause they consider important, people might be tempted to downplay positive outcomes so others don’t turn their attention elsewhere. But if they send a message that the progress so far “doesn’t count,” people may get discouraged and give up anyway.
So, let’s look at these numbers. I was curious and turned to the U.S. Census Bureau for some statistics. Its current 2018 estimate is that about 60% of the US population is white, 18% is Hispanic (I’m choosing the term Hispanic over Latinx because it’s broader, and it’s the one used by the Census Bureau), 13% is black, almost 6% is Asian, just over 1% is Native American, less than 1% is Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and almost 3% is mixed race. BUT, those numbers are for all Americans, and the racial makeup of the US is always changing. For Americans under the age of 18, Kids Count puts the numbers at 51% white, 25% Hispanic, 14% black, 5% Asian, 1% Native American and Alaskan Native, less than 1% Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, and 4% mixed race.
I don’t think that statistical representation is necessarily the goal. Quality matters as much as quantity, and giving people of color an edge over statistics seems fair in light of their historical underrepresentation–it won’t hurt white kids to see a higher proportion of people of color as main characters, as long as the publishing industry doesn’t go to the other extreme and make all white kids bad guys. But based on the above infographic, the only group that is still severely underrepresented are Hispanic youth. And they are severely underrepresented.
If we take out the animal books, the percentages come out differently: 1.3% of the books feature Native American characters, 6.8% Hispanic, 9.5% Asian, 13.7% black, and 68% white (that’s where the numbers would have to give to allow for more Hispanic characters). What’s the deal with the animal books? Their percentage of the market has actually gone up. I wonder if that’s because animal books can be seen as more universal: many different kids can relate to animals characters regardless of race. There’s a caveat to that, though: characters can be “coded” to be of a certain demographic even if they look “raceless” on the surface. For instance, in the latest iteration of My Little Ponies (which I enjoy along with my kids), I get the sense that all of the ponies are “white.” That could be because I’m white and white is often the “default” race in media, but it’s also the voice actors and the accents and vocal styles they use. So, those animal books? I’m not sure if we can count them as universal or if they would reinforce the feeling for non-white kids that they’re on the outside. The best understanding would come from asking non-white children what they think.
There are a few other aspects of these numbers I find troubling, beyond the fact that the number of Hispanic characters is so far behind actual demographics. One is that Pacific Islanders are lumped in with Asians. This happens a lot, but there’s a pretty wide gap between the history and culture of the Pacific Islands and Asia. I’ve looked for kids’ books specifically about Pacific Islanders, and they’re very hard to find. Also, mixed-race kids don’t seem to be represented at all in the statistics, even though they’re growing as a share of the population (a common shortcoming).
What about religious diversity? I have seen more kids’ books with Muslim characters lately, and I think reading about people of other faith traditions goes a long way toward reducing fear and antagonism between various groups–atheists, Buddhists, Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Mormons, Methodists, etc.–we all need to understand each other. Showing the complexity of faith and religion is great, but none of these groups should make its main appearance in literature as a “boogieman” (something that often happens to many organized religions, but especially various Christian denominations and Muslims).
And kids with disabilities? They tend to be very underrepresented as well, and apparently, no one is even thinking of tracking their numbers (in the future, they’re going to be tracking LGBT+ representation).
So, there’s room for improvement in creating a selection of diverse children’s books, but I still think we can celebrate the progress we’ve made as a writing community. I’ve enjoyed many of the diverse kids’ books I’ve been reading and sharing with my children. For those of us who aren’t publishing gatekeepers (agents and editors), we can still encourage diverse books by seeking them out and buying the best ones for our children to signal to those gatekeepers that there’s an interest.
Huyck, David and Sarah Park Dahlen. (2019 June 19). Diversity in Children’s Books 2018. sarahpark.com blog. Created in consultation with Edith Campbell, Molly Beth Griffin, K. T. Horning, Debbie Reese, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and Madeline Tyner, with statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison: http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp. Retrieved from https://readingspark.wordpress.com/2019/06/19/picture-this-diversity-in-childrens-books-2018-infographic/.
Released for use under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0 license). You are free to use this infographic in any of your work, including presentations and published work, so long as you provide the full citation noted above.